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The ancient meandering streets of the Old Quarter are each named after the crafts and speciality trades traditionally practised by the original artisan's guilds in the 13th century. Each guild was grouped around a temple, or dinh, dedicated to the particular beliefs of the village from where the guild originated, and many of these temples are open to the public today. The early merchant's quarter affords an intriguing glimpse into life centuries ago with covered markets, and the ancient narrow buildings that still line the streets, known as tube or tunnel houses that contained shops. Businesses were taxed according to the width of their storefront and resulted in shops only seven foot (2m) wide with a series of storerooms, workshops and living quarters extending behind to a length of up to 197ft (60m). Many streets are still devoted to a predominant trade such as silks, religious objects or textiles, silver jewellery, antiques, and there are numerous art galleries and craft stores, as well as cafes and pavement restaurants lining the streets. Traffic within the Old Quarter is a chaotic mix of bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians passing noisily down the narrow streets and shady alleyways.
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
Ba Dinh Square was where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence and where independence is celebrated each year. Dominating the west side is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the embalmed body of the 'father of the modern state', 'liberator of the Vietnamese people' and beloved public figure is displayed. The body of Ho Chi Min is enclosed in a glass case, the traditional way to honour famous communist leaders. Security is tight, there is a strict dress code and it is imperative to maintain a respectful demeanour while inside. Nearby is the Ho Chi Minh Museum that commemorates his life, housing a collection of military orders, correspondence, manifestos and photographs that illustrates the crucial role he had in the country's history.
One Pillar Pagoda
One Pillar Pagoda was constructed to celebrate the tale of the heirless Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who dreamt about receiving a son from the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion, seated on a lotus flower. He married shortly after and bore a son, and the pagoda was built to honour the event. It is the most interesting of the city's numerous pagodas, and beneath the ornate curved roof people come to pray for fertility and well-being, with allegedly miraculous effects. The unique wooden structure was designed to resemble a lotus flower, the Buddhist representation of enlightenment, emerging out of the water, with the single stone pillar its symbolic stalk.
Temple of Literature (Van Mieu)
The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's historical seat of learning and is the most sacred place for the disciples of Confucius. It is one of the few remaining buildings from the original city founded by Emperor Ly Thanth Tong in the 11th century and is a well-preserved example of Vietnamese architecture. It became the site of the country's first university in 1076. Consisting of a complex of small buildings and five walled courtyards, it was an exclusive establishment teaching the principles of Confucius. Over a period of 900 years thousands of Vietnamese scholars graduated from the university. In the third courtyard is a pond, the Well of Heavenly Clarity, and beside it are 82 stone stelae, mounted on tortoises and engraved with the names of successful graduates. There is also a temple dedicated to Confucius and an altar where the king and his mandarins would make sacrifices.
The natural wonder of Halong Bay, renowned for its spectacular scenery and limestone grottos and caves, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bay is peppered with over 3,000 tiny islands emerging almost mystically out of the pea green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, scoured by wind and wave erosion to form dramatic rock shapes, many of which contain caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Many of the islands have been named for their astonishing resemblance to their namesakes, such as Dragon, Incense Burner, Pair of Roosters and Man's Head Islands. The weird protuberances have been at the source of several local legends, particularly about the dragon whose thrashing tail created the bay and its islands. The name Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea'. The most impressive cave is the Hang Dau Go (Grotto of the Wooden Stakes), an extensive grotto with rock formations presenting various eerie images in the mysterious light. It was named from the Battle of 1288 when General Tran Hung Dao prepared hundreds of stakes to be planted in the riverbed of the largest chamber to counter a boat attack. Nearby the beautiful Hang Thien Cung cave is famous for its sparkling stalagmites and stalactites.
Sa Pa and Bac Ha
The old hill station of Sa Pa sits high on the edge of a plateau surrounded by spectacular scenery and the Hoang Lien Mountains, which boast Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan. Sa Pa functions as a market town and a gathering spot for local tribes who come into town to trade every weekend. The market is excellent for buying handicrafts and for watching the passing parade of a fascinating blend of people. Colourful tunics of the Dao and Giay people mix with the black and blue clothing and silver ornamentation of the Black Hmong tribe, while bright red scarves cover the heads of the Red Hmong who carry large woven baskets on their backs brimming with goods. Nearly 50 miles (80km) from Sa Pa in a valley is the small town of Bac Ha, famous for its Sunday market. Much less touristy than Sa Pa, the market is a riot of colour and noise, a place not only for trade but also for socialising. All paths leading into town are filled with people going to market, some riding horses or water buffalo, and the square is a mix of different minorities, buying and selling, or gathered in groups around a central pot of food. The Flower Hmong are the most vivid, with richly coloured clothes of bright red, blue and pink, and skirts embroidered with delicate flowers. The markets have become a major tourist attraction and it is important that visitors to the region are sensitive to local culture and traditions, particularly when taking photographs of people.
Cat Ba island
For most, a trip in Halong Bay means at least a night on Cat Ba Island. Many enlist for a package tour of one night on the island and one on a boat, but Cat Ba is worth extra time to discover. This 54 sq mile (140 sq km) island houses equally impressive beach relaxation and hardcore outdoor activities including kayaking, trekking, and world class rock climbing. For those wishing to relax, three beaches, within walking distance of town, are spacious and each are protected inlets with views of Halong islands. Beaches one and three are the most secluded and their short walk along cliff lines provide beautiful views. For those looking for something more rugged, the many limestone cliffs dotting the island make dream rock climbing. Hotels located on the town's main strip offer guides and gear. Various treks range in length but most are fairly steep and a give bird's-eye-view of the island's national park which is also home to the rare Cat Ba Langur. All hotels can arrange excellent boat tours of the surrounding islands which include visits to deep caves with stalagmites and stalactites, secluded swimming holes, floating fish farms and kayaking. The tour is the same no-matter whom it's booked through so the cheaper the better. For relaxers or adventurers alike the day must end at the bay's floating restaurant for the best seafood in Vietnam.